If even the UN in Iraq is corrupt

Even United Nations organizations in Iraq are corrupt. The interests of UNDP employees are so intertwined with those of Iraqi officials and contractors, that almost everyone has something to lose.

When the Dutch government decided to entrust the UN organizations UNDP and IOM with the implementation of projects in the Iraqi city of Hawija, as a kind of compensation for the Dutch bomb that destroyed the city in 2015, no one was happy about that. Because in Iraq, everyone knows how much sticks to the fingers of international and national aid organizations.

Hawija – that is the city where the international coalition dropped a bomb on an explosive factory of the terrorist group ISIS. Instead of no civilian casualties, there were almost ninety, and part of the city was wiped out. At a court in The Hague, victims demand individual compensation. The Dutch Ministry of Defense refuses, for it says nobody could have known it would turn out so badly. The court recently determined that it needs evidence for that to be able to make its decision.

That victims want to be compensated individually has a lot to do with the corruption that pervades the entire society. Especially local NGOs are notorious; I know quite a few that were only set up to bring in subsidies for salaries, not for aid. Therefore the Dutch government thought it would be best to give the four million euros they had allocated for the reconstruction of Hawija to international organizations.

But when I returned to the city some time later, there was little visible of IOM and UNDP projects being carried out with Dutch money. Colleague Melvyn Ingleby also established that.


That was not so strange, as it now turns out from research by freelance journalist Simona Foltyn in the Guardian. She discovered that the UNDP’s program for the reconstruction of Iraq (worth 1.5 billion dollars) is riddled with corruption. No one gets a contract for restoration work without paying for it – just as within the Iraqi government services. UNDP employees demand bribes that amount to 15 percent of the contract value, to ensure that a contractor or builder is approved in the screening of their company.

How much of that 1.5 billion (from 30 donors) is actually used for reconstruction, Foltyn wondered. She calls it one of the most difficult investigations she has ever done. ‘The financial interests of UN employees, contractors & Iraqi officials are so closely aligned that almost everyone has something to lose.

UN programs have actually strengthened corrupt Iraqi officials, she argues. After talking to about thirty people involved, she outlines how, after the first 15 percent that the UNDP employee demands from the contractor, a series of dominoes falls. If the contractor gets the project, he takes part of the subsidy money (to pay the UNDP employee and himself) and passes the project on to a subcontractor – even though UNDP rules prohibit that.

Fontyn came across a project budgeted at $100,000, of which the subcontractor only received half to carry out the work. The rest had been pocketed along the way. And after that, the officials who have to oversee the project for the UNDP demand money for it; they take another five to ten percent.


Eventually, the schools, hospitals, and playgrounds are built. But I have seen for myself that this is usually done with lower quality materials. In a number of cases, this even led to crisis situations and fatalities when during a fire, thin partition walls in hospitals immediately caught fire.

How can this be? Because the rot is already in the organization, which is also responsible for the control. To prevent detection, deals were only made verbally. At the same time, diplomats and donors who are supposed to control on site are often only briefly in Iraq and do not have a view of the entire process. And they only get to see specially selected projects.

Yezidi activist Murad Ismael remembers how, when he was director of the Yazidi organization Yazda, he received an email from someone from an organization where he had applied for funding. That person asked for a ‘commission’ if he wanted to have the application approved. Ismael refused, reported the case, but never heard back about it again.

What struck me when I led a training center (between 2008 and 2013), is how much money was circulating in the UN organizations with which trainings were given that in my opinion were useless. And how the participants themselves received allowances (instead of paying for the training). We also had those requests from participants but refused to pay them, just like we never held trainings at foreign locations. Beirut was especially popular for such pleasure trips.


An example of skimming in reconstruction is Mosul. The corrupt governor Nawful Akub took the lead there, and ensured that every aid project went through his office. There too it was clear that the UNDP only tackled projects if employees received bribes.

The Guardian article shows how deep corruption goes in Iraq. And that it certainly does not happen in isolation, out of sight of the foreign community that tries to position itself on a higher moral ground. While the UNDP, even after the scandal, still proudly reports to ‘support journalists in their attempts to end corruption in Iraq.’

At the end of last year, the UN in Iraq came up with a special program against corruption; ‘#Runagainstcorruption’, to work with the Iraqi government ‘towards a corruption-free Iraq’.

In response to Foltyn’s revelations the UNDP says that it will take ‘targeted and strong action’ ‘if any of these allegations are confirmed’. She has reported that UNDP managers have since tried to discredit her.

The sad thing is that corruption in Iraq has increased so much since Saddam’s fall in 2003, that it is everywhere in the society. Graduates have to pay if they want a job in government. Parties pay for a ministerial position because they can then help party loyalists to work, but above all also profit from skimming at all levels.


Renad Mansour, who leads the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, conducted extensive research into its various aspects. In a debate following a recent publication, he said that ‘corruption shows where the real power is and decisions are made. Not with the prime minister, but at a much deeper level. The Iraqi elite is above the law.’

Corruption also forms a barrier to reforms. ‘Over the past twenty years, the international community and Iraqis have set up numerous programs. But the political will is lacking and there is no capacity building,’ says Mansour.

Political will is essential to end corruption. But most politicians have more to gain if it continues. They profess to be against it, but use that to get rid of the competition. Mansour does not see that changing anytime soon, although he points out that there are still honest people working inside the system. Ultimately, they should get a chance by working together with reformers, he believes.

His hopes lay in the fact that political pressure still has an effect, as evidenced when young people during the so-called Tishreen revolution protested against corruption and thereby forced the resignation of the government. Demography will play an important role, says Mansour. ‘In the coming years, many thousands of young people will enter the labor market for whom there is no work.’

The hope therefore lies with the Iraqi youth, and the fact that the current politicians are not interested in helping them to a better future. The elite will not give up their access to wealth without a fight. Iraq faces a massive conflict between the mass of young and impoverished Iraqis, and the corrupt political elite that has its own weapons and militias.

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